Alex Witchel: Taking comfort where she can find it
"All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother's Dementia. With Refreshments" (Riverhead), by Alex Witchel
Sunday, October 7, 2012
Some seek the comfort of bed or a therapist's couch to ease grief, but author Alex Witchel heads to the kitchen. In her new book, "All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother's Dementia. With Refreshments," Witchel shares the heartbreak of caring for a parent as illness slowly snatches her away.
Witchel, a New York Times food and arts writer, takes comfort in cooking to work through the frustration, anger and unspeakable pain. Finding solace in her spices, preparing meatloaf and potatoes provides consolation and makes her feel connected. "As my mother began the torturous process of disappearing in plain sight, I retreated to my kitchen, trying to reclaim her at the stove," she writes.
The book traces the relationship between Witchel and her mother, who — in many ways — was the great love of her life. The detailed descriptions of her suburban upbringing — from the sights and smells of the kitchen to errand runs in the car — are relatable and nourishing.
Witchel paints a romantic picture of her modern mom — the perfect combination of tender and tough — who rejected the typical housewife role to work and receive her doctorate. She's the kind of mother you wish you had or want to be. As Witchel grew older, she began to recognize her mother's small betrayals, but forgave her and learned to blame her father for the hurt. As an adult building a career, she had a serious boyfriend but admits to gaining more satisfaction from time with her mother.
When her mother starts to show signs of dementia and depression following several ministrokes, Witchel tries everything she can to fix her. Relentlessly thorough and inquisitive at their neurologist visits, she hires an aide and encourages new activities to keep her mind sharp and spirits high. As her mother's condition worsens, Witchel grips tighter, often changing her medications and routines, hoping the busy woman she knew would return.
Several years into the journey, at her mother's request, Witchel finally lets go and surrenders to her mother's inevitable decline. She still copes with the "ambiguous loss": her mother is alive but not who she once was.
Witchel writes beautifully from the heart, but with a journalist's clarity. She moves from past to present dexterously, and like a good reporter, proves her points with cogent memories. She has remarkable talent for describing each player with revealing anecdotes that speak volumes. Her unflinching honesty and humor draw in readers. She's candid about family relationships: indicting her emotionally detached father, exposing a long rift with her sister and disclosing pivotal moments in her marriage to acclaimed writer Frank Rich.
Witchel describes her long goodbye — the fleeting sparks of her mother's old self and the last lucid conversations — in wrenching detail that might make you cry. But her subtle storytelling somehow isn't depressing. One of the book's themes is taking comfort where you can find it: in food, home and relationships. While we may strive for more success, time and perfection, what we really crave is simplicity, safety and reliability to sustain us.
Each chapter of stories is punctuated with a family recipe. Although she's dined with the world's top gourmet chefs, this New York Times foodie still loves a good tuna fish sandwich. She sings the praises of chopped meat and Del Monte canned vegetables without a dash of irony. Making a familiar dish for family is her meditation, her control. While her mother's condition is unpredictable, the roasted chicken is not.
In the midst of her mother's illness, Witchel's sister is diagnosed with cancer, and even the perfect Thanksgiving dinner cannot temper her sorrow. When she realizes she cannot repair all problems, she's able to move forward and return to the warmth of her oven.
Through her sensitive yet powerful prose, Witchel reminds readers that family relationships are precious and time is fleeting. The book may move you to call your mother and tell her you love her while you still can.
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